For two years in my English class, we had talked about her dreams of becoming an intelligence analyst at the CIA. Unlike some students, this one’s dreams were realistic. As salutatorian of her graduating class, president of National Honor Society, and one of the most driven and politically astute students I’ve had in 18 years of teaching high school, this young woman was uniquely suited for the work she had chosen.
A month before graduation I finally thought to ask where she was going to college. American? GW? The disappointment on her face was unmistakable. She said she would be attending the state school because those other colleges were out of reach for her family. I was stunned. Had she not received scholarships? Financial aid? Turns out, not enough.
But. But! This outcome was unacceptable. This student couldn’t not pursue her dreams.
The state school is great for many things, but it is not known for intelligence analysis. So I got to work. I started making strategic phone calls and sending emails. I texted everyone I knew with connections. I found an alumna of the university in my Facebook friends list and asked for her help. Within four days we had two thirds of the cost covered by the school of her choice, and the help kept rolling in after that.
You might wonder why the student herself didn’t accomplish this.
Sometimes, part of our job as teachers is to bridge the gaps. We do it all the time when we remind students to say thank you, to turn in work for other classes, to be kind to younger students. We bridge gaps left by busy and absent parents, who mean well but may be unable to negotiate certain aspects of their children’s lives. We bridge gaps the school counselor doesn’t notice because her case load is enormous. We make calls for students to land jobs and advocate for them to meet admissions officers in person so they see our students. We side-hug our students, tell them we love them in so many ways.
This student, despite all her immense accomplishments, did not have the words, the connections, or the strategy to overcome the seemingly insurmountable financial obstacle in her path. The English teacher in me, however, knew I could deploy numerous communication tools on behalf of this student whose dream simply could not be deferred.
I used descriptive language to help every phone partner see my student. Conjuring the persistence of Celie from “The Color Purple” I did not let people go without hearing every crucial detail. I read and revised numerous emails, texts and tweets to search for ways to fill gaps between tuition and resources. Most importantly, I recognized my role in this mini-drama immediately: to bridge the gap between the protagonist and her goal.
After all, as teachers, this is our role every day. Through our content, our classroom routines, the relationships we build, we lay the foundation for students to walk upon with confidence. When they leave our buildings, they know how to create pathways that won’t crumble. When the goal is on the other side of a gap, we help them jump it. Or in this student’s case, when the gap is a chasm, we help them build a bridge over it.
There is no more important responsibility than this.